Despite garnering critical accolades for his many fine novels, including his last, 2002’s Testament, about the life of Jesus, Nino Ricci has still lived somewhat under the long shadow cast by his first, and greatest, success, Lives of the Saints.
That need not be the case anymore. The Origin of Species, the symphony to Lives’ chamber piece, is Ricci’s greatest masterstroke to date. This is a novel that does so well, on so many levels, that it’s hard to know where to begin tallying up the riches.
We are in eighties, post-language laws Montreal, a vibrant but sometimes alienating place still sorting out its attitude to immigrants, Jews and Anglos; Chernobyl’s recent, apocalyptic meltdown is invoked in every rainfall. Alex Fratarcangeli, a doctoral student at Concordia University, is anxiously trying to breathe life into his as-yet unbegun thesis — an ambitious fusion of Darwinian biology and trendy post-modern critical theory —while trying to juggle a series of relationships with women in various stages of ascendancy, decay and collapse.
The principal players in Alex’s world are established at the novel’s Mrs. Dallowayesque outset, as we follow him the day he is to have a party at his downtown high rise apartment. Alex, who has the habit of filling conversational voids, finds himself in the unwished-for position of having invited a potentially combustible mix of people, a group that includes his grandstanding, jargon-prone academic advisor; a Haitian refugee; Esther, an MS sufferer and fellow tenant he has just met; a closeted gay French Canadian businessman to whom he teaches English; an El Salvadoran woman he finds himself puerily in lust with, and a host of other females he either regrets sleeping with or wishes he had.
Prone to bouts of anger and self-loathing, Alex processes some of his issues in imagined, frequently self-aggrandizing, interview scenarios between himself and radio host Peter Gzowski. He also attends psychoanalysis but uses the sessions to wage a self-abnegating, one-sided war of hostility toward his therapist, Dr. Klein, to whom he strategically throws scraps of personal history while hoarding the real issues that plague him. Paramount amongst these is his own recent discovery that he is the father of a five-year-old boy who lives in Sweden with a woman Alex had a relationship with during his globe-trotting youth. The indecisiveness he feels about his role as parent is exacerbated by the emotional loose ends left from an emotionally destructive relationship with his ex that resulted, paradoxically, in the guilt of an abortion.
Halfway through the novel, we backtrack seven years, to 1980. Alex’s travels have taken him to the Galapagos Islands, but his progress is stalled by the expense of the charters necessary to access Darwin’s stomping grounds. So it is that when an arrogant British researcher, Desmond, cavalierly suggests Alex accompany him on a voyage out, he jumps at the opportunity. What follows is a harrowing three weeks at sea with a lecherous sea captain, Santos, and the Kurtz-like Desmond, to whom, Alex slowly comes to realize, he is utterly in thrall, even as the nefariousness of the Brit’s motives becomes clear. Having wished Desmond ill after several near-death experiences, Alex feels only bewilderment when Desmond eventually meets a violent, tragic end during a storm at sea.
Such is the power of Ricci’s gripping prose that when the narrative returns to Alex’s current life (which we are loath to leave for all its intrigues) we feel literally breathless. Alex himself makes only one or two passing references to the Galapagos incident, but for the reader, Alex’s story is now cast in an entirely new light, freighted with information that clearly will never make it past Dr. Klein’s threshold, but sits festering in ours. Alex’s relationships play themselves out to their various conclusions and it is left for us to weigh the baggage that the incident may, or may not, bring to them.
Ricci’s genius is in laying bare all the elements, but never guiding us to meaning, instead offering up blissfully attenuated moments of lucidity and real emotion. This is an ambitious, thrilling novel that resists encapsulation and takes not a single misstep. Ricci’s language is simple, yet somehow always unexpected. Each sentence, each word, feels exactly right, landing in our inner ear with an ecstasy-inducing thunk. The dire intelligence of the thing is perhaps driven home most exquisitely by the fact that, on top of all the thought-inducing social, religious and political critiques, it is also bitterly, achingly funny.
Alex’s scholarly aspirations are, perhaps, also Ricci’s when he ties writing to evolutionary biology:
What held the whole caboodle together, of course, was Mr. Darwin: Narrative, like everything else, was a strategy. Get it right, and, like Scheherazade, you survived.
But Ricci does more than survive. He triumphs utterly here in this rare achievement.